The College of Saint Rose and UDELAS in Panama

A partnership about education, culture and the exchange of ideas

El Canal de Panama!

-Lauren Kalbfell

The famous canal- most in the US have heard of it in history and geography classes and are generally familiar with it and its history. But here in Panama City, every Panamanian is familiar with it and knows its rich and elaborate history, the manpower and resources that are required to continue its ongoing use, and what it means to the country of Panama and their international relations.

A ship from Liberia making its way through the Panama Canal.

I had actually been once before on a touristic guide whilst on a cruise with my family when I was about 8. Our second day here we went on a tour of the canal and got to see it in action.  A boat from Monrovia (the capital of Liberia in Africa) went painstakingly slow through the locks of the canal as it was guided on each side in the front and the back by ropes attached to trolleys riding tracks alongside the canal. There couldn’t have been more than a foot between the end of the ship and the sides of the canal. Complicated, but fascinating. The canal works through a series of locks in which the boat enters, is locked into place, then the level of the boat is levitated or lowered through an input of aguadulce- or freshwater- from surrounding man-made lakes. We learned from our tour that despite the variable Panamanian landscape, the boats remain at sea level throughout their passage through the canal. The canal, as we know, is absolutely essential to world trade and tourism. It’s one of the seven wonders of the industrial world, and is considered one of the greatest engineering feats in history. To this day, there are cargo ships built specifically to the dimensions of the canal so that it can pass through, we learned that these dimensions were referred to as Panamax. Hearing about it is one thing, and seeing it is another. It’s a fascinating mammoth of a thing, and it runs like a massive machine with all the well-oiled parts working cohesively. Really impressive.

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We also learned from the tour a brief synopsis of the history- as soon as the colonial Spanish empire had found out that the small bit of land was such a small passage of land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, having a canal there had been the dream of many. The French were the first to attempt construction in 1880. We were told that they were poorly administrated, did not take into account Panama’s geography and climate, and therefore quickly went belly-up. The French supplied their workers with winter-issue construction clothes, and attempted the equivalent of building a river straight through that did not account for changes in sea level or terrain. They also did not account for the incidence of tropical disease- yellow fever and malaria took what was predicted as 22,000 slaves and other workers. After a lot of political dissension, the US began the construction of their version of the Canal in 1904. There was a lot of politics surrounding the Canal and its ownership and functioning, but at the time of creation, the land surrounding the canal was controlled by the United States. It was peacefully handed over to the Panamanians in 1999, and now Panama retains full ownership of the canal, the land surrounding the canal, and the full benefit of the taxes and revenue that the canal brings in.

A map in the museum of the canal.

What I also learned from an interview with a professor at UDELAS, Rosario Herrera, was some of the newer developments that are not included in the history of the canal. We visited a school named after Omar Torrijos. When I asked who he was, the Rosario explained that he was a general who lead the negotiations between the US of relinquishing the Canal to Panama. At the original construction, the US believed that they would indefinitely own and govern the canal. The Panamanians thank Omar Torrijos for his debating and skills for their eventual ownership- he argued that all of the freshwater essential to the working of the canal was located on Panamanian land, and therefore, was Panama’s. This negotiating point eventually led the US to agree to give the Canal to Panama much after the construction had begun. Rosario also shared that the Canal is unique in that every captain of every boat that passes through the Canal has to relinquish the wheel and allow a specially trained captain to take over the hull. For this reason, the ship’s flag is retired and while going through the canal, every ship flies a Panamanian flag. These captains have to go to through specialized engineering training. Altogether, engineers that hope to work on the canal need to go through six years of training in a school that focuses on teaching the ways of the canal. Elite students of that school are picked after their first three years of schooling to get the training for the next three years to become the specialized ship captains. We also learned about what the Canal does for Panama. It used to be that Panamanians could not enter the Canal Zone without proper identification, because it was US owned. There were many army barracks and executive offices for the US army to use while they were stationed here. Now that all of the land and buildings belong to Panama, the Panamanian government has determined that all of those buildings could only be used for the betterment of Panama. The university that I’m currently attending, Universidad Especializada de las Americas Panama, is a university based around helping professions, such as Speech Pathology, Education and Special Education, 911 Emergency Responding, Nurses and Health Aides, and that university finds its home in the old Canal Zone. It was only begun in 1997. The Panamanian environmental protection agency is just beginning to grow and make recycling available in Panama; its headquarters are also located in the Canal Zone. The elementary school we went to go visit- Escuela de Omar Torrijos- is filled with inclusion classes that specialize in teaching students with Learning Disabilities and emphasizing bilingualism heavily. It’s fascinating. Panamanians believe that the government has very responsibly handled the increase revenue from the Canal that Panama began receiving in 1999 by investing in nutrition programs in school, enhanced education programs nationwide, development of infrastructure and tourism, as well as many other projects that benefit Panama.

Us with teachers from Escuela Omar TorrijosMe with students from Omar TorrijosUs with a class at Omar Torrijos

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2 Comments»

  Anita wrote @

Very informative and very interesting. Thanks Lauren

  Nanci Kalbfell wrote @

Again I learned more from you than from being there myself!! Great info.


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